Words of apology and confession last month showed Mennonite Church USA has come a long way toward accepting LGBTQ people as equal members of the body of Christ.
The apology came from Rebecca Stoltzfus, president of Goshen College, who expressed regret for discrimination 11 years ago against Katie Sowers, an alumna who now coaches in the National Football League.
The confession came from a denominational advisory group that acknowledged church policies “have caused great harm and pain to LGBTQ Mennonites” and recommended ending discrimination against them.
These statements are welcome signs of progress toward equality for LGBTQ people in North America’s largest Mennonite denomination.
In a report released Jan. 27, the Membership Guidelines Advisory Group said: “We acknowledge and celebrate the resiliency of the LGBTQ Mennonite community in their contributions and gifts to the body of Christ.”
The group backed up its words of confession with a recommendation to end restrictions based on sexual identity, gender orientation or marital status in denominational ministries. It invited conferences and congregations to “join in this healing practice of nondiscrimination.”
We hope many will.
The advisory group recommended an important action to correct flaws and remove contradictions in church polity by retiring the Membership Guidelines. Though the guidelines forbid pastors to officiate same-sex weddings, multiple conferences allow it if the pastor’s congregation approves. Scrapping the guidelines would also eliminate the contradiction created in 2015 when delegates reaffirmed the guidelines and also promised to forbear with those who violate them.
As if to illustrate the harm to LGBTQ people that the advisory group confessed, the story of Katie Sowers and Goshen College exploded in national media.
On Feb. 2, Sowers became the first woman and first openly gay person to coach in a Super Bowl. With Sowers in the national spotlight as an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, the college released a statement from President Stoltzfus on Jan. 22 apologizing for denying Sowers a volunteer coaching position in 2009. Calling the rejection “hurtful and wrong,” Stoltzfus offered “our profound apologies to Katie Sowers and to all others who have not been welcomed here, simply because of who they are.”
Would Sowers have gotten an apology if she weren’t famous? Regardless of the answer, what’s most important is the positive change the statement represents. Eleven years ago, the college felt it couldn’t accept an LGBTQ assistant coach. Today, such discrimination has become something to look back on with shame.
After the apology, Sowers told NBC Sports Bay Area she loved her time at Goshen and everything the college represents.
And during the Super Bowl, even loyal Kansas City Chiefs fans in Sowers’ hometown of Hesston, Kan., cheered for a certain assistant coach on the San Francisco sideline.
Goshen College is just one example of the change in attitude toward LGBTQ Christians in Anabaptist higher education. Last year, the board chair of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Bruce Baergen, assured constituents that the new president, David Boshart, supported the seminary’s policy to be “a safe and inclusive place for LGBTQ+ students and employees.”
A climate of welcome for LGBTQ people is making a positive impact on the lives of Mennonite college students. At a Bethel College chapel service in 2016, a student spoke of feeling “cast away by the church I was baptized in.” At Bethel he found love and acceptance.
Colleges stand at the forefront of generational change. The values of tolerance, diversity and inclusion have become articles of faith for a generation of youth. At Mennonite colleges, LGBTQ students expect to be affirmed for who they are. Their friends will accept nothing less for them. In denominations that are moving in a progressive direction, like MC USA, many people feel the same way.
Before any of the Membership Guidelines Advisory Group’s recommendations can become policy, three levels of discernment remain: the Constituency Leaders Council, Executive Board and delegate assembly. But the report itself marks a significant milestone. The advisory group has done important work by studying the past as well as suggesting a path forward.
The report’s review of recent history concludes that the Membership Guidelines’ legacy is one of conflict and loss. Yet it seems probable that disagreements and departures would have happened no matter what the policies were. A proposal to split the United Methodist Church over disagreement about the place of LGBTQ people in the denomination shows MC USA’s conflict is not unique.
Efforts to satisfy both traditionalists and progressives have not succeeded. MC USA has tried maintaining traditional policies at the denominational level while allowing progressive practices at the conference and congregational level. This has proved frustrating to all. The report notes the losses of both traditionalists and progressives “and of people — especially the young — who witnessed how MC USA was functioning and discerned it was not for them.”
If any of the recommendations are adopted, we hope people with a range of views on sexuality will accept them, even if every conference and congregation does not implement all of them. The advisory group anticipates this, admitting the denomination “does not have the authority to require conferences and congregations to adopt . . . [a] healing practice of nondiscrimination.” Yet, it says, “we invite them” to do it.
One can read this invitation as an expression of hope that MC USA will remain a church where traditionalists and progressives both feel at home. Diversity of belief and practice on sexuality will continue to exist in MC USA, even if it adopts LGBTQ-inclusive policies at the denominational level.
Forbearance of different beliefs will continue to be necessary. The church is stronger when it includes people who don’t see eye to eye on everything. In our diversity, the Holy Spirit nudges us to consider perspectives different from our own, to be humble, to learn from each other and to accept that no one knows all truth.
If adopted, the recommendations have the potential to set MC USA on a path toward a better future, one with less conflict, loss, harm and pain. It would be a future in which the church, as the advisory group says in its confession of past failures, “affirm[s] the full status and worth of LGBTQ people.”